“‘Stupid bloody system!’: Bad IA in the workplace” - Jonas Söderström at EuroIA

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 28 September 2012

I’m trying to keep up with nearly-live-blogging EuroIA in Rome. So far I’ve posted notes on talks by Gerry McGovern,Peter J. Bogaards and Birgit Geiberger & Peter Boersma and Raffaella Roviglioni.

I actually split my time during Raffaella’s talk because I wanted to see some of Jonas Söderström’s session on bad enterprise software.

EuroIA Rome 2012

EuroIA Rome 2012
by Martin Belam
All of my notes from the 2012 EuroIA conference in one ebook, featuring coverage of talks by Gerry McGovern, Peter J. Bogaards, Andrea Resmini, Eric Reiss, Jim Kalbach, Carola Weller, Sara Wachter-Boettcher and Stephen P. Anderson
Available free for iBooks, for Kindle, and as a PDF

“‘Stupid bloody system!’: Bad IA in the workplace” - Jonas Söderström

“Didn’t we create the machines to do the work for us? Are we doing the work for the machines?” - Jonas Söderström, EuroIA

Jonas Söderström was talking about how technology has transformed the role of a type of care nurse in Sweden. A typical employee has a schedule dictated down to the minute of how long it takes to travel between elderly patients’ homes, how long to feed them, how long to make their beds. Every action has to be confirmed electronically to a central management database, which presumably measures efficiency and reports wonderful figures back to politicians. But all compassion in the job is lost. How do you tell a machine that patient B just seemed down today and so I spent two minutes longer with her?

Jonas started his talk with some very bleak statistics about the workforce in Sweden, and some slides illustrating some common usability issues with enterprise software - for example the text on a form over-writing the space where you are supposed to put in the answer. Reminding me that even Apple can make this mistake - just ask Karen McGrane about the text on the “Download” button in iTunes.

Jonas said that between 1996 and 2003 reported levels of “stress and severe psychological pressure at work” had more than doubled in Sweden. Since the country had been coming out of a recession, you would have expected the exact opposite. One possible cause is the rise of use of technology in the workplace. Jonas pointed out that if you worked in an office in the very early nineties, you might have had email. In 2012, one supermarket he works with has over thirty IT systems in use, from purchasing stock to issuing customer coupons. Sweden now has 1 million people working in front of computers for 8 hours a day, and it is estimated they spend a third of their time in physical contact with technology.

His talk, and the book it is based on, are his call to arms to make things better.

He gave one example, of a system used to update the user manuals that go with trucks. To change the value of a figure from 7.5 to 9.5 in one of the manuals took an incredible 18 separate procedures, all of which consisted of multiple steps. Jonas put up a screen of disheartening quotes from real workers, saying things like “I used to be a good writer” and “It’s all about taming the system”.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of the number of journalists I’ve seen disillusioned by the way the news industry has forced them down a path of effectively filling in database entry forms to file copy.

Jonas showed a brilliant “life hack” to a system designed to manage restaurant reservations. The screen displayed an Excel-style view of who was booked for which table or when, and the head waiter crossed people off with a marker on the screen rather than do the data entry procedure to update the system. For a simple reason, he or she could do that whilst maintaining eye contact and a human welcome to customers, not ask them to wait whilst they wrestled with a computer system. Here’s the original blog post about this story.

Asking whose fault this all was, Jonas resisted the temptation to blame “the nerds” - they are, he said in his experience, quite keen to make things better. That is definitely true in my experience of a lot of developers. Showing them video of users struggling with a system, or getting them to sit in on usability sessions will often unlock their inner UXer.

Jonas had a significant point to make about traditional user testing though. It is based around testing consumer products, where watching a few people for an hour each is good enough. Jonas doesn’t think that cuts it in the workplace - he suggested that whole teams need to watch someone do their job for two whole days before they can design for them. I certainly agree that it is difficult to design work systems, even when you have done observation. I designed the Guardian moderation system based on observations of the moderators at work, and tried to incorporate some of the workarounds they had developed using Google Docs into the system. Within a few weeks of launch, they had to develop more workarounds, because I hadn’t captured everything they needed to do in all of their working days and hours.

At one point Jonas showed us a big red X as an icon, and asked us what we thought this icon meant. Suggestions were things like “Delete”, “Close” and “Warning”. Jonas explained that in a multi-million Euro enterprise system, that red X meant “Create new document”.

How did we get here?


Maybe something about iPhone research, maybe something about RITE, or maybe I’ll be at the evening drinks reception and incapable of posting...

This is one of a series of blog posts about the talks I saw at EuroIA 2012 in Rome. You can download the whole lot in an ebook for iBooks, for Kindle or as a PDF

“The dirty magnet” - Gerry McGovern
“Helping businesses to tackle a ‘wicked problem’” - Peter J. Bogaards
“Process & People” - Birgit Geiberger & Peter Boersma
“An agronomist’s unexpected path to UX Design” - Raffaella Roviglioni
“Responsive IA: IA in the touchscreen era” - Martin Belam
“‘Stupid bloody system!’: Bad IA in the workplace” - Jonas Söderström
“On beauty” - Andrea Resmini & Eric Reiss
“RITE: Testing and a business driver” - Jim Kalbach & Carola Weller
Building a coupon app for iPhone - Hermann Hofstetter & Gregor Urech
“Micro IA and content that travels” - Sara Wachter-Boettcher
“What am I curious about?” - Stephen P. Anderson

You can also download all my notes from the previous EuroIA in Prague as one PDF or as an ePub document.

1 Comment

Thanks for a nice review, Martin! In the second part of the presentation, I talked about the return of Parkinson's Law (in IT gestalt) and the rise of Bureacracy 2.0.

You'll find it in the slides, now online.

There are extensive notes to the slides. And the mis-spellings have hopefully been corrected.

And a big thanks for ALL your reporting from EuroIA!

Keep up to date on my new blog